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Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas!

December 6, 2012

Songs like Burl Ives’s Holly, Jolly Christmas used to trouble me greatly.  I was profoundly concerned with the de-sacralization of Christmas.  Consumerism was the biggest affront, but so too was the decreasing focus on the “religious” elements of Christmas.

My concern was inpsired and fueled, in part, by other Christians who seemed thoughtful and level-headed and who asked probing questions about how we celebrate Christmas.  I remember, for example, a high school friend’s father who argued, somewhat facetiously, that the Bible spoke out against Christmas trees, citing Jeremiah 10:3-4: “For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.  They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”  Clearly a reference to the making of idols, but a good reminder to Christians not to make an idol of their Christmas trees or holiday celebrations.  In fact, I remember making this point in a Sunday school class nearly twenty years ago and a couple took to heart the message and chose that afternoon NOT to go Christmas tree shopping, as they had planned, nor to buy a tree at all that year, in an effort to reorient their thinking about Christmas.

I applauded their decision then, and I applaud it now.  But I do wonder if my concern about making an idol of our Christmas celebrations has blinded me to making an idol of Christmas.  Christmas celebrations by Christians have not always been a given, Puritans, for example, did not recognize Christmas at all, and I have good friends today who do not exchange gifts on Christmas if it falls on a Sunday in order to respect the sabbath as they believe the Bible calls them to do.  Certainly neither the Puritans nor my friends are at risk of idolizing Christmas.

Others, however, including myself, who have sought to RE-sacralize Christmas, may be going too far, trying to create meaning or give significance to a day that needs no extra help.  In the first place, whether Christians celebrate Christmas as a religious celebration or not is a foregone conclusion of one’s theology.  But even if we are among those saints who choose to celebrate Christmas, I wonder if we worry too much about getting it right, or making sure we’re approaching it with the right degree of spirituality.  I think for most Christians, we really do recognize what “the reason for the season” is, and even if we choose to follow many practices that are not overtly tied to the commemoration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our engagement in those practices doesn’t obliterate in our minds or hearts the locus of the holiday.  No doubt we should guard our hearts against consumerism, gluttony, and any number of other traditional or modern sins that might occur during the Christmas season, but we don’t need Christmas to give attention to our piety.  Furthermore, we should be equally cautious about embracing an idea that if we don’t practice Christmas the right way, or if we don’t give sufficient attention to the incarnation, or if we don’t achieve a particular degree of spiritual experience, than we have sinned or not given sufficient meaning to Christmas.  If we lean towards such ideas, I believe we risk making an idol of Christmas itself.

But in addition to that, we need to remember that the world is created with many different dimensions and that all of these are, or should be, spispier christmasritually infused. One of our favorite holiday books is Peter Spier’s Christmas, pictures of which appear here.  I don’t know about the rest of the family, but I love the romanticized, but also realistically drawn, elements of the story.  It captures a sense of time gone by, of family togetherness, of annual traditions, of the joy of social gatherings, of the solemnity of Christian worship, of the satisfaction parents feel at providing for their children.  It hints, too, at the darker side of the holidays–of consumerism, material excess, exhausting labor at hosting family gatherings.  But what I like the most about, or what I infer from, Spier’s record or recollection of a Christmas celebration, is that the holidays are multi-faceted like the world God created.  There is meaning in the traditions of Christmas decorations and decorating. There is significance in the marriage bond that is more than just a husband and wife, or a pair of parents, but a two-become-one who form a marriage, provide the basis for a family, and become the sustaining core of the larger extended family (grandma and grandpa have their part in Spier’s narrative, too).

These things are not special because everything they do reminds us of the incarnation, nor because they have somehow sanctified their holidays by providing for the homebound (as one set of images protrays).  All of what goes on in this book, it seems to me, reflects the multi-dimensional flourshing that God wants for his image bearers–the joy of celebration; the fun of decorating, giving and rpeter-spier-christmas-1eceiving gifts, and playing games; the pleasure of one another’s company; the coziness of good food, warm spaces, and comfortable clothes; the fondness with which we remember the past, engage in traditional rites and activities, and create new traditions; and the recognition of God’s great gift to us–his son Christ Jesus.

But when we try to find meaning in Christmas by adding meaning to our holiday activities, that is, by downplaying the “secular” or sanctifying it with additions to the spiritual side of things, then I think we miss that all these dimensions of our experience are God-given aspects of his creation that are already imbued with meaning, a meaning rooted in our God-imaged-ness and our inbred nature to explore, expand upon, and develop all these dimensions.  If we try to turn Christmas into a celebration that denies all of the aspects of what it means to be human than we miss the point of why Christ became incarnate in the first place.  He came to dwell among us so that we could be reoriented within the creation order, not away from it.  He came to live, die, and live again, so that we could love, and flourish in, the creation as he called us to do when he created us.

Have a holly, jolly Christmas!


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